When we hear the word insulin, we generally associate it with either type 2 diabetes or low blood sugar. Insulin is also repeatedly labelled the bad guy because it makes us fat. But if all those things are true, then why do bodybuilders take insulin? Insulin is the most powerful anabolic substance that bodybuilders, weight lifters, and athletes can put into their bodies to enhance muscle growth. But it is not something that can be messed around with. However, there is a big misconception among a new generation of newbie weightlifters who think that insulin is something that can be used as a beginner. This is definitely not the case. But if hitting those plateaus causes you to look for other alternative methods of gaining an edge, then taking insulin safely as a bodybuilder is something many consider.
What is insulin?
Insulin is a hormone secreted from the pancreas right after we consume a meal. Its main job is to keep our blood sugar under control by removing glucose molecules from our bloodstream . It prevents your blood sugar from getting too elevated as well as getting too low.
Sugar does not have the ability to enter most of our cells, therefore, when we eat and our blood sugar rises, cells in the pancreas receive a signal to release insulin. Insulin then unlocks the cell allowing sugar to enter from the bloodstream.
When you have too much sugar in your blood, insulin stores the excess in your liver and saves it for release when your blood sugar drops too low. If your body cannot produce enough insulin or if you are resistant to insulin, then you are at risk of developing high blood sugar (hyperglycemia). Long term complications can arise from this depending on how long blood sugar levels remain elevated.
Insulin and diabetes
Type 1 Diabetes
If you suffer from type 1 diabetes, it means that your body cannot produce insulin. This happens because the beta cells in the pancreas have become damaged. You will need insulin injections in order for your body to process glucose.
Type 2 Diabetes
With type 2 diabetes, your body has developed a resistance to insulin. You may require shots to help your body process sugar, however, as type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease, a more favourable approach is to use a combination of diet and exercise to prevent long term complications.
Can insulin even build muscle?
For anything to have an effect on muscle building within the body, something called muscle protein synthesis (the process of new muscle growth) needs to occur.
Opinions on whether or not insulin has a direct effect on protein synthesis have been divided on the subject. But one particular study showed that extreme doses of insulin do indeed have a direct effect.
It does this in two ways:
- Insulin increases the amount of blood flow to the muscle. More blood flow equals more nutrients. More nutrients equal more growth.
- Insulin heads straight for the muscle cells and switches on the cellular pathways that control muscle growth.
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How do you manipulate insulin levels naturally for muscle growth?
As powerful as insulin is, it also has a major flaw. It can build up fat cells and muscle cells in equal measure. If you eat sugary carbs at the same time as you eat fat, your body transports the carbs into the cells right along with the fat.
The best time to drive insulin levels up with high-glycemic carbohydrates is before, during and after your workout . At other times you would ideally use lower glycemic carbohydrates. Adding fats to the low glycemic meals will also keep you more satiated and away from the sugary snacks.
Knowing which foods on the glycemic index will raise or lower your blood sugar is a great way to control your insulin levels to maximize your results in the gym. Foods like white rice, white bread, bananas, and sugary jams will spike your insulin for shorter periods because of their high glycemic index. While foods like brown rice, sweet potatoes, oats and brown rice will release slowly over a longer period of time.
Manipulating your carb intake around your workouts is not only an effective way to speed up protein synthesis but also to avoid the catabolic effect that high-intensity training can have.
So why do bodybuilders take insulin?
As well as transporting glucose out of the blood and into the cells for energy, insulin is also an anabolic hormone. It promotes glycogen growth which fuels the muscles and boosts muscle mass. Timing carbs around workouts is crucial in maximising the recovery process. The faster bodybuilders recover from workouts, the more frequently they can train.
Through pushing carbs and being in a calorie surplus so frequently, bodybuilders can eventually develop insulin resistance. A lot of bodybuilders supplement with Human Growth Hormone which can also promote insulin resistance.
When glucose starts to build up in the blood and is not being absorbed by the cells, type 2 diabetes can develop.
Why injecting insulin is so dangerous
Bodybuilding is an extreme sport, and competitors are always looking for that extra edge when it comes to competition time. In some cases, that can mean injecting insulin. Insulin has a lifespan of about 4 mins after it’s in your system. Once it’s done its job, it’s gone. So to any bodybuilder injecting insulin for a competition, there’s no risk of it being detected.
The problem here is that insulin is meant to only be injected by people whose bodies can’t manufacture enough insulin, such as diabetics.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
- Mood swings
The biggest risk of abusing insulin
If you have normal levels of insulin, it is extremely risky to inject insulin. Muscle is active tissue. During exercise, muscles need more glucose, therefore taking additional insulin only increases the body’s sensitivity to it. Cells become more efficient at utilizing glucose.
So if you’re bodybuilding, which can lower your blood sugar, and injecting insulin, which also lowers your blood sugar, you are at a much higher risk of hypoglycemia. Used incorrectly, and without any supervision from medical professionals, insulin can be fatal.
Insulin also works in conjunction with anabolic steroids. While steroids work to generate new muscle growth, insulin helps to prevent the muscle and liver from going into a catabolic state by increasing the synthesis of protein and glycogen. It supports the entry of amino acids and glycogen into the cells, thus improving stamina. The user achieves this by taking glucose and insulin simultaneously.
There is little to prevent the use of insulin in bodybuilding. In the UK insulin has been a prescription-only drug since 1988. The International Olympic Committee has banned the use of insulin in non-diabetic athletes. But there is nothing to prevent diabetics from supplying or selling insulin to athletes.
A study showed that 57% of athletes admitted to PED usage at some point in their training. If 57% are willing to admit steroid usage, you can imagine how high the actual number is.
If things do go wrong, insulin can have lethal consequences.
A far safer approach, for recreational bodybuilders who aren’t swayed by the lure of competition, is to follow the natural path of manipulating insulin levels through carb-cycling around their workouts.
Those who do take exogenous insulin are also at risk of retaining more body fat. Insulin will also take any excess glucose in your body and store it as fat. Which sort of defeats the object of injecting it in the first place!
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